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Red Tomato Artisanal Pizza review

Red Tomato's pasta dishes, including gnocchi classico, are

Red Tomato's pasta dishes, including gnocchi classico, are placed in cast iron skillets and popped into the wood-burning oven to cook. (March 5, 2013) Credit: Doug Young

Sleek as a new Ferrari but way more affordable, the year-old Red Tomato Artisanal Pizza in East Norwich is now running on more than just its well-crafted pies. Lately, Naples-born owner Lello Messina, a partner at Messina Market next door, has been ingeniously maximizing his restaurant's wood-burning oven to bake bread, roast eggplant and turn out pasta dishes. Small wonder the place is usually hopping with a family crowd.

Tomato basil soup, made in the kitchen of Messina Market, trumpets the vibrancy of its ingredients. Better yet, Italian wedding soup is a happy union of robust chicken broth, al dente pastina and loads of plush, cleverly seasoned mini meatballs -- a veritable meal in a bowl.

Marble-sized meatballs, in profusion, come together with a bright Neapolitan tomato sauce and a melt of fresh mozzarella to make a primo sandwich on house-baked ciabatta, done with pizza dough. The same bread is the base of an Italian BLT -- prosciutto, arugula and Roma tomatoes. It's good, if a tad dry; doesn't every BLT deserve a little mayo? A tuna and avocado salad -- Italian canned tuna and fresh sliced avocado served over mixed greens -- pairs well with its citrusy lemon vinaigrette.

Here, pasta dishes are assembled each morning, placed in cast iron skillets and popped into the wood oven when ordered. There's a hearty fusilli with a meaty, slightly creamy Bolognese sauce. And, also, light, lovely gnocchi -- potato-semolina dumplings -- with Neapolitan tomato sauce, Parmesan and mozzarella. While it may look slightly burned on top, that wood-oven char imparts a lovely smokiness. Paccheri -- a thick, somewhat doughy Neapolitan rigatoni -- joins roasted eggplant, sauce and cheese in savory harmony. Infused with the woodsy flavor from the oven is a pasta-free entree of juicy white meat grilled chicken Margherita, mixed with sauce and cheese.

If there's a downside to Red Tomato, it's that pre-assembling everything leaves no room for customization. But it's this method of production, along with the repetition of ingredients, that keeps entree prices below $10.

Conclude with a sweet campfire-flavored Nutella and marshmallow-topped pizza. Or a slice of airy-rich ricotta cheesecake, baked next door by folks who understand how satisfying it is to eat well without spending lots.

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